Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, by Annabel Pitcher

In the United States, the word terrorism brings to mind the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Though the United States does not face acts of terror on a daily basis, as those of some nations do, the psychological toll from this attack still resonates today. Almost anybody in our modern world should be able to relate to Annabel Pitcher's debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, where the attack (fictional) occurs in England's Trafalgar Square. Pitcher aims the novel at a younger audience by making her main character a boy who was too young to have felt this tragedy deeply. This makes her novel a good place for young teens to contemplate the emotional impact of a terrorist attack on its survivors, yet it doesn't quite have the depth to move adult audiences.

The main character, Jamie, lives with his father and his sister, Jasmine, whose twin, Rose, was killed by a bomb five years before. Since that time, Jamie's mother left the family for a man named Nigel, and Jasmine dyed her hair purple and began to dress as a goth. His father has turned into a raging alcoholic and quit his job, which makes one wonder how he ended up with custody of the kids. What sort of mother would let her children live with a man like him? Jamie was five when the attack happened, so he doesn't remember it very well. He also doesn't remember Rose. To him it's just an eccentricity that his father keeps an urn containing her ashes on the mantelpiece, and it's an annual tradition to head out to the water and contemplate dumping the urn's contents.

Jamie's family moves to a new town, out of London, where Jamie must now attend a new school. This is a christian school, so it's a little surprising that one of the students is a Muslim girl named Sunya. Sunya instantly becomes an object of fascination to Jamie. He is curious, not about her garb, but because his father has developed an intense hatred of Muslims since Rose's death. He makes daily visits to anti-Muslim websites and believes all Muslims are insane suicide bombers at heart. So it's distressing to Jamie that Sunya takes an immediate interest in him, yet her sunny personality eventually wins him over.

This serves as the main plot, but there are several subplots, including Jamie's and Jasmine's struggle to take care of themselves while their father spends his days passed out or vomiting in the toilet. There's conflict when Jasmine introduces her new boyfriend, of the green-haired, spiky mohawk variety. And Jamie obsesses over the day his mother will finally pay him a visit, as she has promised. Multiple subplots are fine, but their downside is that they stretch the story too thin and none of the plot points are strongly developed.

Pitcher does a nice job of writing from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy. The writing is crisp, in the unsophisticated voice of a young boy. Sometimes the sentences flow breathlessly, as the narrator keeps them alive by adding another "and" to the end. This isn't necessarily how ten-year-olds talk, but it is accurate about how they write. Periods are sometimes forgotten, or the problem is that kids haven't quite grasped the concept of a sentence just yet. Sometimes this writing grows repetitive, with too many sentences having the same breathless structure, yet it's never dull.

Memory is another area Pitcher gets right. Too many stories, both in books and the movies, provide characters with photographic memories. These teenagers or adults remember everything, but the reality of memories is that they fade over time. That Jamie barely remembers his sister is understandable, and it's believable that his grief for her is almost non-existent. Perhaps Pitcher does go a little far in portraying Jamie's amnesia, though, when you consider how traumatic the event was. Most faded memories tend to be of everyday sorts of things, but when a bomb explodes right in front of you and blows your sister to smithereens, that's a memory that will have very vivid indentations on your mind. This is just an example of how Pitcher tends to deaden the emotional impact of her story, and it seems to be a trend followed by many young adult novels.

Another problem is Pitcher's tendency to portray other characters and issues as one-dimensional. Jamie's father's alcoholism seems less realistic than hyperbolic. His mother's abandonment is hard to believe considering what a loving family they were before the bombing. Sunya is often unrealistically, if not eerily, bubbly. You have your standard classroom bully who acts like an angel in front of the teacher, and the teacher who seems to hate most children. The plot goes into odd places later because Pitcher doesn't take the time to fully develop any one scenario. The only characters who have any sort of depth are Jamie and Jasmine, yet even there you'll find a strong note of melancholy and not much else.

As a novel aimed at young adults, the above-mentioned problems aren't quite so bad. There is some value to be had for young teens, and parents can take relief in the fact that the bomb violence as described in the novel is artfully, not graphically, portrayed. More than likely girls will enjoy this more than boys. Not to say Pitcher unsuccessfully writes from the perspective of a boy, but Jamie has a feminine feel, such that I was unaware he was a boy until his name, James, was mentioned. There's also the element of romance between Jamie and the Muslim girl, Sunya, that will leave boys less inclined to read this than girls. Throughout the entire novel, the only friends Jamie has are girls: his sister Jasmine and Sunya. The only boyish thing Jamie does is participate in soccer in a brief episode. It's unfortunate the novel goes the route of romance because the age of the two characters involved makes this unlikely. Not that the romance involves any making out, but it does involve the desire to hold hands and for Jamie to catch a glimpse of Sunya's hair underneath her hijab. To make matters worse, the romance is predictable and lacks spark.

The novel feels much more episodic than cohesive, and those episodes use predictable story arcs. The romance plot, for example, has Jamie's feelings for Sunya bounce between love and hate several times throughout the course of the novel. One moment he wants nothing to do with her, then he craves her attention, and then he remembers that Muslims killed his sister and ignores her, and so on. It grows irritating after a while. Random plot threads dominate the bulk of the work, involving the aforementioned soccer game with all of the usual elements involved in that kind of story line; an inevitable encounter between Jamie's father and a Muslim, which blows up in unrealistic, poorly-written fashion; Jasmine's new boyfriend and what her father thinks of him; Jamie desperately awaiting his mother to finally visit (seriously, what is wrong with that woman?); and an audition for Britain's Got Talent. This seems like a lot to happen to a ten-year-old in such a short span of time, but it wouldn't be so bad if it was done with more cheer or more originality.

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